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Elizabeth Gilbert on the inner creative relationship: “There’s a contract between you and the mystery”

Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2009 TED talk about creativity as a relationship between a person and his or her genius has now entered the lore of contemporary digital media culture as a singularly popular and significant framing of the central creative question by a celebrity author. Gilbert used her TED time to talk about the damage caused by the modern-day view of creative genius as an inner quality possessed by a few stupendous individuals, and she recommended a return to the pre-Renaissance understanding of creativity as an external force, entity, or intelligence that visits a person on its own schedule and for its own motives in order to inspire and assist with some creative act, after which it moves on to somebody else. We would be better served, she said, by dropping the modern idea of people as geniuses and reclaiming the ancient view that creativity means having and cultivating a relationship with a genius.

That was in early 2009. In the nearly four years since then, Gilbert has continued to talk about this concept in various interviews and writings. Most recently, she gave a particularly nice description of her evolving view in an interview for The Rumpus. Here’s the key passage, where she offers a new and useful metaphor in her idea of “the plow mule and the angel.”

She also gives excellent articulation to a point that I hammer on at length in A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius (which is still available for free download over at Demon Muse): that working in creative relationship with a muse, a genius, a daimon, doesn’t entail sitting around doing nothing and waiting for inspiration. Your work, your effort, is what calls the genius to you (a point that has also been hit hard by Steven Pressfield).

Rumpus: I love your TED Talk about creativity. You talk about all the pressure creative people put on ourselves to be “geniuses,” and how that’s messed things up and given us an unrealistic amount of pressure, when in fact we should think of “genius” as a thing out of our control. Has that perspective made writing easier?

Gilbert: I’ve come to think of it as the plow mule and the angel. This is how I think of it: there’s a contract between you and the mystery. And the mystery is the thing that brings life to the work. But your part of the contract is that you have to be the plow mule, or the mystery won’t show up. It might not even show up if you do your work. There’s no guarantee. It doesn’t promise you anything, but I can promise you that if you don’t do your work, it won’t show up. That’s the only guarantee. It’s not going to wake you up in the middle of the night to be like, Hey, I’ve got this golden gift for you! It doesn’t do it that way. It needs to see that you’re giving the full commitment.

It’s the idea that I will do my side of this bargain. As long as I am able, as long as I have agency over my body, I will do my part of this, even when I don’t want to, even when I don’t believe in it. It’s gonna be a long life, hopefully. And so it’s all right to embark on a project that doesn’t work, and it’s okay to abandon one. It’s okay to recognize that you took a wrong turn, and to begin anew. It’s okay to write a book that gets bad reviews. It’s okay to write a book that no one reads. The idea is just to focus on how you want to spend your life. My intention is to spend my entire life doing this, so any one piece of it isn’t that important when you think of it in the long scale. Then when you open up that scale even further and you think of the entire history of human collaboration with the arts—my little piece of it is really insignificant, and that takes the pressure off a lot, too. I’m just joining a history of people who do this work. I’ll do it for as long as I’m permitted. I’ll do it to the best of my ability. It may not be successful, it may not be lucrative, it may not be well-received, but I’m gonna give it everything that I have, and then I’m gonna die, and then other people will do this. And so it will go. And what a wonderful way to live your life! What a great company of saints to join. And a wonderful team to play on: the makers. It’s worth a lot of trouble to get to do that.

— Rachel Khong, “The Rumpus Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert,” The Rumpus, October 29, 2012

Perhaps this goes to show that if you haven’t yet watched/listened to Gilbert’s TED talk, you really need to. Here it is. Carve out 20 minutes where you set aside all distractions and really pay attention to what she says.